The Pursuit of Ignorance

In his TED talk, titled “The pursuit of ignorance”, Dr. Stuart Firestein raises a number of questions which merit discussion. He questions the ability of our education system to produce scientists, as well as the trend that one knows less but knows it well as he/she pursues higher education. One specific point, however, has stricken me most: “Research is the pursuit of higher quality ignorance”. Although I agree that the search for a scientific answer typically leads to a panoply of more questions, I find it difficult to say this is explicitly why I decided to dive into research. I find that my pragmatism always keeps my wandering thoughts in control. That is, my goal has always been to try and develop something useful that might impact someone’s quality of life one day (from a biomedical stand point of course). Therefore, my interests align with more immediate lines of impact. This couldn’t be the wrong mentality could it? I mean, research grants typically ask for an impact section. Am I just bluntly showcasing my poor attempt at innate self-validation? I guess the idea of finding an impact does place certain constraints on one’s creativity, and later on his/her output.

I also asked myself: what if there was no clear problem to solve? What if scientists somehow solved most of the planet’s on-going problems (for the time being)? Does that put an end to the revolving wheel that is the scientific method? By asking these questions, I realized that I’ve drifted towards the engineering mentality, that is, applied science, and confounded it with scientific undertakings.

Looking at the recent discovery of gravitational waves, one wouldn’t immediately discern its benefits to society. So then why is it that we continue our endeavours in the field? Is it profitable? Maybe, but I wouldn’t say the salary is as compelling as that of an industrial job. Are humans embedded with an innate sense of curiosity and an insatiable appetite for learning? Maybe. From an evolutionary stand point, one could make the case that our level of sophistication has increased. By striving to improve our quality of life, humans look to their surrounding problems to find solutions. When problems aren’t immediately clear, humans still continue learning about their environment. This is especially beneficial because in the event a problem arises, one would already possess the necessary knowledge to address it. That still doesn’t entirely explain why humans pursue it. Why would we inherit such a characteristic? Is it possible that evolution has fueled human egocentricity and embedded us with a God-complex, pushing us to try to fully understand our universe? I understand Dr. Firestein makes the analogy between science and the magic well, but who really thinks like that? How can that drive us, if it explicitly demonstrates that there is no end to what we can learn. From a utilitarian stand-point, I’m questioning the value of tremendous amount of knowledge with no immediate application or use in society.

I guess it is foolish of me to think that one could possibly predict all future uses of his/her research. Maybe I’m too much of an engineer, maybe the thought of no finish line for certain projects tires my mind…



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